A Red Palace for the Red Queen at Palenque, Mexico
Archaeologists and restorers working Mexico’s Palenque Palace have not only discovered a new entrance to the complex, but evidence that the roofs were painted red.
Located within the Archaeological Zone of Palenque, in the Chiapas state in southern Mexico, the Maya Palenque Palace served as both the ceremonial and administrative center of the city of Palenque in the 7th and 8th centuries AD. This eclectic assembly of courtyards, corridors, subterranean passageways, and grand rooms was also an immense royal residence.
The Palace represents what is regarded as one of the most complex Maya architectural structures ever discovered. Now, after four years of complex restoration and preservation work a team of archaeologists at Palenque have not only discovered a new access to the Palace, but they’ve also uncovered an area of red paint still existing on the Palace roof.
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Works on friezes at House C, Palenque Palace, Palenque, Mexico. (Haydeé Orea/INAH)
Red Roof For A Red Queen
The Palenque Palace is most well-known for the discovery of the Tomb of the Red Queen. This elite burial chamber was found in Temple XIII and contained the remains of Lady Ix Tz'akbu Ajaw and two of her servants.
Beginning in 2018, a four-year long preservation project has been conducted by the INAH Chiapas Center and the National Coordination for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage (CNPCC), focusing on preserving four buildings within the Palace: houses B, C , D and E.
Each of these four rooms were restored in totality from beneath the floors to the ceilings. The team of preservation specialists and archaeologists unraveled many hitherto unknown aspects of Maya design and architecture. However, the most significant recent two revelations were an old access passage on the roof of House D, and the discovery of a fragment from “the original red polychromy”. Basically, this offers confirmation that the roofs of the Palace were painted red.
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Final view of the finished restoration works on the roof of House D, with the area of red paint over painted. (Jorge Coraza/INAH)
Preserving Blood-Red Maya Memories
The thin patch of red paint was discovered at the northernmost aspect of House D. It was revealed when a layer of previous restoration cement, from the 1960s and 1970s, was removed. Measuring only 1 meter (39.37 inch) long by 85 centimeters (33.46 inch) wide, chemical analysis determined the red pigment had been made with many minerals including iron oxides.
Professor Haydeé Orea Magaña is co-director of the Palace's Architectural Conservation and Decorative Finishes project. The restorer said in order to guarantee its permanence in the future the polychrome fragment has been covered again - “now with layers of protection and plasters of lime and compatible sand.”
Exposing And Recovering The Ancient Pigment
We might ask, if House D in the Palace was restored in the 1960s and 1970s, why then didn’t those researchers identify the red pigment? Prof. Magaña said that while the 1960s archaeologist Jorge Acosta did not report the red pigment in his records, he did cover it with cement when he restored the Palace. The chief site archaeologist suspects Acosta “must have seen” the red paint but for whatever reason he didn’t record it.
Exactly the same preservation method is being applied today as was done in the 60s and 70s. Magaña said if the pigment had been left uncovered back then, the color would have quickly degraded. And for this reason, as soon as the modern researchers exposed and inspected the red pigment it was quickly covered over in cement. However, the area has been covered with red-fresco paint to indicate for visitors where the patch of original red color exists, behind cement.
The House D Connection
The Palace’s internal mural painting, and 5 stucco reliefs painted on pillars facing the main plaza courtyard, were all restored over the last 4 years. House D is one of the largest architectural spaces in the ancient Maya Palace measuring 33 meters (108.26 ft) long, 10 meters (32.80) wide and 10.50 metres (34.44 ft) high.
The newly discovered access passage to the Palace contains three steps and measures 75 centimeters (29.52 inch) by 45 centimeters (17.71 inch). The lead archaeologist says that the discovery of this passage means House D adjoined the Great Plaza of Palenque and perhaps served “one of the main accesses to the Palace.”
Stone covering the entrance to the rooftop access tunnel on House D Palenque Palace. (Haydeé Orea / INAH)
The researchers speculate that its primary functions were as a surveillance post to control the Palace entrance, and as a way to maintain the Palace roof. This entry into the Palace has also been covered with cement to prevent moisture penetrating the vault and degrading the ancient stonework. But like the patch of red paint, fresco-painted marks show visitors where the passage is located.
Top image: The Palace of Palenque, Mexico, seen from the Temple of the Inscriptions. Source: Mauricio Marat/ INAH
By Ashley Cowie